JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Thursday that his opposition to same-sex marriage should not be interpreted as intolerance of gays, who served in his administration when he was Massachusetts governor.
In a brief interview with The Associated Press, Romney elaborated on comments made during a campaign event dubbed "Ask Mitt Anything" in which an audience member was concerned that the government could prevent pastors from preaching that homosexuality is a sin. Romney said the government shouldn't tell pastors what they can say.
Afterward, Romney would not say whether he thought homosexuality was immoral.
"I don't think that a person who's running for a secular position as I am should talk about or engage in discussions of what they in their personal faith or their personal beliefs is immoral or not immoral," the former governor said in the AP interview.
Romney's record on gay rights has drawn scrutiny — and criticism that he changes with the political winds. In a 1994 bid against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Romney argued that he would be a better champion of gay rights than the Democrat. In 2003, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples could wed in the state, Romney pushed for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
On Thursday, after talking to about 400 people at a downtown library, he said that doesn't mean he is intolerant.
"What you look for in a leader is someone who will welcome and treat with respect people who made different choices and have different beliefs in their lives and have differences. I have nothing but respect and feelings of tolerance for people with differences from myself and feel that way with regards to those who are gay," he said.
He noted that one of his Cabinet members was gay and that he appointed gays to positions of responsibility in his administration.
"I oppose discrimination against gay people," Romney said. "I am not anti-gay. I know there are some Republicans, or some people in the country who are looking for someone who is anti-gay and that's not me."
He said he is opposed to gay marriage because it's not in the best interest of children.
He expressed less tolerance for illegal immigrants, and said he and President Bush have a difference of opinions on a bill that would provide a path toward legalization for an estimated 12 million people unlawfully in the country.
"He has his view, and other people have their views and I have my own," Romney said. "This is for all intents and purposes a form of amnesty in that everyone who is here illegally today will be able to stay under this bill."
The bill is unfair to people who are trying to come to the country legally, he said. People here illegally should be able to apply to come to the United States, but under the same terms as everyone else and behind those who have already applied.
"I don't think that we're going to round up 11 or 12 or however many million people and bus them out of the country. That's not what I'm talking about," Romney said. "Those who committed felonies, of course, would be deported. Those who require government assistance to stay here would surely need to get off government assistance and ultimately could not remain here on government assistance."
At a news conference Thursday, Bush argued that the bill does not grant amnesty.
"Amnesty is forgiveness without a penalty," said the president, who added the measure is "a difficult piece of legislation. And those who are looking to find fault with this bill will always be able to find something."